With nomadic children of Indonesia’s vast forests as her students and the lush canopies as their classroom, nothing about 2014 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Saur Marlina Manurung’s work can be described as typical.  Yet through her determination, compassion and Greatness of Spirit, she educated Indonesia’s Orang Rimba, Indiana Jones-style.

Saur Marlina Manurung, more popularly known as Butet, recalls that “every time I came with a pen, they would run away. And unless I put my pen back into my bag, they would not come back.” “They” refer to the Orang Rimba or forest people living in the depths of the jungle at Bukt Dua Belas, Jambi, Sumatra. They called pencils “evil with spiked eyes” and when Butet realized that they had been cheated out of their land when they were made to sign contracts under false terms, she understood why they believed evil started with these instruments of literacy.

Butet stayed steadfast in her commitment to bringing literacy to the Orang Rimba despite circumstances that would have made other teachers give up. During her first few months in the jungle, winning the trust especially of the Orang Rimba elders seemed impossible. In fact, she had to teach the children how to read, write, and count secretly, and had to hide their schoolbooks in the bush. When the elders discovered what she was doing, they burned the books and told her to leave. They allowed her to come back only when she promised that she would no longer teach with books and pencils but would just talk to the children.

Butet Manurung with Orang Rimba children
Butet Manurung with Orang Rimba children

In the seventh month, her efforts reached a turning point. Three boys went to her. They were 7, 10, and 14 years old and they wanted her to teach them. Seven year old Pendengum Tampung, when he succeeded in reading the word “buku” which means “book” in Bahasa Indonesia, climbed a tree and started screaming to the whole forest, “I can read!” Ten years later, she would witness Pendengum, now a young man, addressing a crowd of hundreds about the human rights of forest people.

In these early months as well, she won over the elders during a territorial dispute when the village chief of the Orang Rimba was asked to put his thumbprint on a written agreement. The chief’s son, one of the children whom she was teaching, stopped his father and asked that he be allowed to read the agreement first. Butet remembers that her student took a long time reading it but in the end, he pointed out the inaccuracies in the agreement and demanded that changes be made to safeguard the interests of their village. The chief proudly declared that their people could no longer be cheated because his son could read.

Butet started her nomadic literacy campaign in 1999, using a small blackboard, some chalk, and a few books and pencils. By 2003, the campaign had grown into the not-for-profit organization Sokola which develops and implements literacy programs that are responsive to the strict customs, traditions, lifestyles, and development challenges of indigenous and marginalized communities. Today, its fourteen schools, eighteen teachers, and thirty volunteers serve these communities in ten provinces across Indonesia, including Nanggroe Acheh Darussalam, Jambi, West Sumatra, Java, Sulawesi, Flores, the Mollucas, and Papua. Ten thousand children and adults have been helped by Sokola.

Butet’s teaching has enriched not only her students but her own self. For Butet, teaching has never been a one way process. When she started her literacy campaign, she had to ask herself whether the Orang Rimba really needed change and whether this change would preserve or destroy their culture. She realized that her first task was to make them feel proud of themselves, to help them realize that what they have in the jungle is complete and is of value. She believes she has succeeded in this because none of her students leave their home.

Just another day in the "school of life".
Just another day in the “school of life”.

She had to develop a teaching approach appropriate to what she calls a “school for life,” a school that benefits the lives of the Orang Rimba directly. “I try to see things the way they do.” One incident stands out clearly in her memory which made her see the need for this. She tried to stop her students from killing a baby bear caught in a trap but they explained, “Ma’am, please don’t say that. If God heard you, he would not send food anymore. What’s in our trap, what’s in front of us, that is food sent by God.” So each lesson she teaches deals with a situation in their lives. If logging is a problem, she teaches them what to do about it. If the people suffer from diarrhea, she equips them with information on sources of diarrhea and how to avoid it.

She considers the “mainstream” perspective as the biggest challenge for the Orang Rimba: the point of view of people in the “mainstream” including the government, ordinary citizens, nongovernment organizations, and businessmen that the Orang Rimba have to live the way the “mainstream” do in order to be civilized and to be considered human. This is the problem of all indigenous peoples in the world, according to Butet. Noone validates their knowledge. And yet, Butet attests, the indigenous peoples are actually the best teachers on environment. Their local knowledge should be documented and in fact, shared with the rest of the “mainstream” world.

Butet’s belief that the Orang Rimba will lose their forest, their culture, and their way of life if they are not educated makes her even more determined to continue with her work. It does help that she has always been fascinated with the jungle, even as a child. “Because I was born in Jakarta, I don’t have access at all to the wildlife but I always heard the calling. Every time I look at the forest, even if it’s just a painting , my heart would race and I know that’s a calling.” She insists that “it’s the jungle that chose me, not me who chose the jungle.” When she was small, she told her parents that she wanted to be a hero like Indiana Jones, and her parents told her that Indiana Jones was just a character in a movie.

Orang Rimba children
Orang Rimba children

Now forty-two years old and an anthropologist, Butet is proving to be a hero in the real world although she humbly admits that when she teaches the Orang Rimba to read and write, “it’s not me that’s the hero because I do that for me. It’s actually to fill my own hunger. Otherwise, my life will not be peaceful. I cannot sleep.” Butet has been teaching indigenous people in her country for years so that they can represent their elders before the national government and speak on policies that impact the lives of forest people. She does not intend to stop doing this anytime soon. She declares, “As long as I can still carry my backpack and I can still walk, nothing and no one can stop me.” Given Butet’s teaching crusade, the estimated forty million indigenous peoples who live within the forests of Indonesia and who are dependent on forest resources for their food, shelter, and livelihood, are in safe hands.